by Elizabeth S. Q. Goodman, third-year graduate student in Mathematics
I use some terms in this article which may be unfamiliar to many readers. Here is a useful glossary that gives definitions I believe to be current. Also, trigger warnings for several brief discussions of violence.
A full-time blogger named Natalie Reed recently wrote about an upcoming bill, C-279, which aims to make gender identity protections in Canada. Many Canadians, she says, assumes that transgender people already have protections against discrimination; but these laws are not sufficiently explicit, have been subject to interpretation, and even a court case about discrimination against a trans woman ultimately ruled that such discrimination was legal. Please read her article, skip my piece if you already care about trans rights, and if you’re Canadian, I hope you’ll write to your MP. Even if you’re not, you can sign this petition which is gaining momentum, and you can spread the word.
So, why should cis Canadians worry about trans rights? Why should cis Stanford students or Americans care? Even if we do care, what good will it do to talk about rights for transgender people, particularly transsexual people? In her article, Natalie argues specifically though briefly that if people do not talk about this bill, it will not pass, but even if it doesn’t pass, the entry of trans rights into general Canadian discourse will make it easier to pass a similar bill later. In this article, as a cis person who’s learned something from the trans people in her life and strives to be an ally, I wish to explain a little about why I care. And I dare you all to learn from trans people and support them in the issues they raise. I am writing this article to address a cis audience, not at all with the intent of excluding trans readers; it’s only relevant in that when I make requests, I’m directing those primarly at cis people. I will not attempt to argue about how Canadian and US politics affect each other, or the contributions of other countries readers my be from. I will not attempt to talk about trans men just as much as trans women.
The story starts with sexism. Sexism as it affects me personally has been going on my whole life, but it has consisted almost entirely of micro-aggressions. (1) While there are obvious cases of sexism that can be socially condemned, sexism in the form of micro-aggressions is like an infestation of bedbugs. You’d go nuts trying to deal with each instance and that’s a futile exercise, but overall they impact your quality of life. This infestation hurts women and men, of all backgrounds.
In particular, as we live life, people treat us as boys or girls or freaks (2), and thus gradually enforce standards of behavior on us. I call this “gender policing”, which refers to when members of society punish behavior that deviates from the norms of gender roles and gender expression. The actual forces at work are more complex of course, and include what one could call confirmation bias: if a woman expresses herself with masculine words and body language, she will not be understood in the same way that a man would, and vice versa. The point is, after some time, one learns that acting according to one’s expected gender expression is more efficient for communicating and surviving. So, growing up as a cis girl, over time I learned to close off some masculine parts of my personality, and developed more external expression of femininity. I don’t even know how much of this process was a conscious choice on my part.
The effects of gender policing are more obvious when considering their impacts on people who are not heterosexual. The “LGB” of “LGBT”, loosely speaking (though the categories overlap, because what makes a person cis or trans is quite different than what makes them gay or straight). Everyone’s heard at least a little about gay people, homophobia, the risks of coming out of the closet, the violence. It can be argued theoretically that homophobia isn’t sexism; people talk about “equal but complementary genders” to justify viewing families with same-sex relationships as less legitimate than heterosexual ones. But in reality, every person I’ve ever met who is uncomfortable with same-sex relationships, as well as most of the people who write about this theoretical justification of homophobia, has also demonstrated rather strict ideas of gender that I find problematic. And while it may be useful to distinguish between homophobia and sexism, gender policing is an important part of both issues.
But gender policing has compounded effects on transgender people, the “T” in LGBT. The people we usually include under the catch-all term “queer”, but often in name only when it comes to the battles we choose to fight. I can’t fit a whole “trans feminism 101” article in here on how to be an ally of trans people, and again I’m cis and no authority on the subject, and there are so many better primers that are easy to find. But even if you never get acquainted with a trans person in real life (which is unlikely), it is worthwhile to think about how trans people who share their experiences can illuminate the problems cis people share with them. Most obviously, if you want to hear a contrast of what it’s like to be treated as a man vs. a woman, try looking up the writing of a trans person who has written about that, or asking someone who is trans and willing to talk about it.
The idea that men are still supposed to be higher-status than women, and society works to maintain this status distinction, is controversial. But contrast the way in which a woman gets mixed feedback if she acts masculine, but a man who acts feminine is instantly scorned. There are several possible explanations for this, but the cause becomes clearer when you consider how transsexual women and cross-dressing men are talked about (and conflated): as a joke. The idea that a “man” would want to “become a woman” is held up as ridiculous. Why should a boy not want to be a girl, or be like a girl? Because girls aren’t as good as boys, so if you’re already a boy, it’s silly to want to be a girl. “Pussy” is not a compliment for men.
On the other hand, saying that a woman has “balls”, as a stand-in for masculine courage, actually is a compliment. It’s not that a woman is always encouraged to be masculine, as words like “bitch” are designed to put her back in her place, but rather that one assumes she should want some masculine traits, because boys are better. A “girl” is not allowed to actually “become a boy”, though trans men are rarely talked about. Often a trans man will “pass”, so people don’t question his right to a male gender identity. But without passing privilege the transphobia comes out: I’ve heard a trans man talk about a customer who calls him “honey” and won’t do business with him, and read accounts from trans men who were raped by cis guys who wanted to “remind” them they were assigned female at birth.
This is gender policing at its most basic, and it hurts women who want to be taken seriously, men who don’t want to be limited to masculine behavior, and if anyone happens to be transgender they are hurt in both respects.
An important piece of common ground for cis women and trans women is that of rape culture. Feminists try to address the victim-blaming that happens when a woman dresses in a sexually appealing manner, and many of the men who see her feel entitled to her body. The idea goes that if she dressed that way, she must be doing so to please men and so her boundaries need not be respected, as if she couldn’t be dressing for herself or for specific people she wants to attract. Similarly, a lot of men sexualize or feel entitled to trans women’s bodies, the idea being that a trans woman’s entire female identity was something she deliberately adopted, which must be in order to look sexy for their pleasure. Julia Serano (3) talks about this in detail. But it’s very common to find people who expect trans women to be hyper-feminine and sexy by cis standards; I heard the problematic phrase “I never would have known! She’s so attractive!” just last week. Trans women are beautiful in their own right, often in ways that don’t resemble any cis beauty standard.
That was just two examples, but many forms of sexism affecting trans people specifically, are closely related to forms that affect everyone. By focusing sometimes on the issues that trans people raise, we can help root out the causes of sexism and combat it. I’d also like more transgender people to recognize how small acts of sexism contribute to attitudes that lead to large acts of transphobia. But while I am not surprised that I keep meeting feminist trans people, I consider it mostly unfair to expect feminism from everyone who is transgender; they have shit to deal with, including transphobia from many cis feminists. But plenty of cis people do have the time and resources to learn about trans rights, be open and accepting of trans people they meet, and do something about the problems. Seriously, most of you have that time and ability. Use a little of it.
You won’t need help finding out what problems; there are many clear-cut examples of transphobia in the USA, and the accounts in the UK and Canada are similar. Transgender people are often brutally victimized, especially when they just want to use the bathroom. Trans women, in particular, are frequently assaulted; and it must be mentioned that trans Latinas and other trans women of color are vastly overrepresented among victims of violence. (I have only the dimmest ideas of how transphobia plays out differently according to race, but this fact is too glaring to leave out.) Then there’s workplace discrimination, housing discrimination, a pervasive culture of ridiculing trans women, a government that refuses to recognize sex changes without surgery, a medical establishment that often refuses to recognize the need for hormone-replacement therapy and other procedures without putting transsexual people through hoops, refuses to pay for surgery, refuses to let people get surgery when they can pay for it unless they have the right doctors’ notes, and the list goes on. If a gazillion anecdotes you find on Google aren’t quantitative enough, you can read a pivotal wide-ranging study about discrimination against trans people, and its effects.(4)
But what happens when a violent crime is committed against a trans person? Too often, people don’t talk about it. We have a long history of not talking about trans people as people with lives. In fact, for many years a person who transitioned was told by psychologists to pretend that they were cis, to leave their families and jobs and start over with a fake life story. And this process, called “going stealth”, is still a socially coerced choice for many people. We don’t have a great idea of how many trans people there actually are, and the continued social pressure to be invisible (to “pass”, it is called), or to be otherwise docile and acceptable to cis society, really makes it difficult for trans people to speak up against violence and hatred.(5) But the violence keeps happening. It might not even get better with age. Take Kate Bornstein’s word for it: she’s a transgender activist of many years, and made an “It gets better video” that, rather than hold out optimistic hopes, addresses queer youth to encourage us to live life. (6)
But even when trans people do speak up, often cis people don’t listen, because we can’t hear them over our own cissexism. One might think that a trans person has a psychological problem, and more importantly, that that means they aren’t to be believed. Worse, labeling someone as a “freak” or otherwise “not like me” tends to shut off empathy, so when someone sees violence against a trans person, often they don’t care. To be clear, I don’t share these attitudes, and I found most of my internalized transphobia easy to unlearn; however, before I met a trans person who was out to me, I knew that I was supposed to think of trans women as “freaks” and not deserving of respect, and I hadn’t heard of trans men. I’ve read and heard accounts of many trans people who lived in denial or self-hatred because of this cultural attitude.
We need a constructive discourse about gender identity, and freedom of gender expression for everyone. The good news is that talk about trans people is already starting to increase. It’s hard for me to tell, because I started learning trans femininsm two or three years ago, but others have noted the rise in visibility of trans people. Recently, there was an uproar because the Girl Scouts of Colorado decided to let a seven-year-old trans girl join up, and a teenage Girl Scout in California posted a hateful video demanding a boycott of the Girl Scouts. More people are writing about transgender children in particular. (7)
The bad news is that a lot of the journalistic writing about trans people is by cis people who have no idea what the f*&^ they’re writing about. Distortion of trans people’s stories in the media is a pervasive problem that has been around for ages. (Google “trans documentary drinking game” to learn more.) The question of what a trans person’s life may be like has become personal one for me thanks to some recent experiences, and it will never again be a theoretical matter to me. So, it is galling and ridiculous when I hear someone theorizing what a hypothetical transsexual person should be like, how trans people wouldn’t exist if we didn’t socially construct gender, or how a person can’t have such-and-such identity because that wouldn’t fit some pretty theory. There’s a difference between learning from trans people’s actual experiences of sexism, and including those experiences in a discourse about sexism, versus trying to squeeze real people’s identities into premade boxes. That’s the difference between making caricatures of people and quoting them directly.
I call on cis people to help make space for trans people to speak up. Start conversations about freedom of gender; call out transphobia when you hear it, but don’t look for rewards for being a good ally; show you’re listening. Don’t expect the small minority of people who happen to be trans all to be encyclopedic experts on gender who never tire of talking about it. Don’t ask someone to repeat for you everything that you can Google (it’s easy, really). Do be mindful of your own subjectivity when you talk, and do realize that trans people are always part of the picture even if they’re obscured. Please. All of these efforts to open up spaces and to self-educate will help make trans people to be heard, saying what they really need to say. Many trans people are fighting and will continue whether anyone helps or not, but we should help.
Finally, to return to the subject of the Canadian Bill C-279: again, read Natalie’s article, and then sign the petition. Natalie is talking mostly to Canadians, about how their country isn’t as liberal as they may think, and how much this bill is needed. But she also says to spread the word, and you can help. Are you Canadian? Do you know any Canadians? Is it too much just to send them her article? And, if you’re American or from another country, are you ready to talk about gender identity protections for trans people? Do you know what the laws in your state are? What will you say when there is a movement in your home area to change them? And do these words of Natalie’s ring true to you?
As long as it’s considered simply a theory, and the various MPs who will make the decisions, and the voters in their ridings, can view trans Canadians as simply some kind of faceless abstract, as long as they’re able to ignore the real human consequences, affecting real human beings, as long as it’s ignored, or discussed quietly and silently behind closed doors, as long it is goes completely unmentioned by the media, it will not pass.
If we do not do everything we can to let this be heard, let it be talked about, and let people understand that Canadians are being denied their human rights, then we are a part of it. We have participated in it. We have let down the vulnerable in our country, and we have let down the ideals on which this country was built.
Because as an American, they sure sound right to me.
Thanks for reading this article, and thanks for acting, now or later. Three relevant privileges of mine are that I’m cis, financially and legally independent, and also that I’m white. I have heard more from white trans people than trans people of color, and not learned much about how the latter group’s experiences are different from the former. So for all those reasons I could be leaving out something I shouldn’t.
Elizabeth S. Q. Goodman is a graduate student studying mathematics, in her third year. She spent a year doing community service for kids in a school in Philadelphia, under a program called City Year. For fun she likes to watch many kinds of musical performance, books, and terrible math jokes.